Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sox' only failure this season is one of perspective

The painful end to the Sox' season doesn't make it a failure for Dustin Pedroia or his teammates. Photo from this site.

I don’t know about you, but when Jonathan Papelbon moved within one strike of closing out the victory in Game Three of the AL Division Series Sunday, I began clearing my viewing schedule for Wednesday night’s decisive Game Five in Anaheim.

I mean, did anyone doubt the ALDS was going back west at that point? The Sox had withstood several flurries by the Angels, who were beginning their usual Fenway fade with Mike Scioscia squawking at the umps and Reggie Willits channeling Matt Holliday and getting picked off first base by Papelbon to end an eighth inning rally. The Sox would gain more momentum in Game Four behind Jon Lester who, even on three days rest, was a far safer bet than soft-tossing Angels lefty Joe Saunders. And you’d have to like the Sox’ chances against the reeling Angels in Game Five.

But now I can watch Glee, because Papelbon channeled the man he succeeded as the most prolific closer in Sox history by failing to record that final strike multiple times and blowing the save as the Sox suffered a 7-6 loss.

The manner in which the Sox lost was shocking—who would have guessed Papelbon would have his Mariano Rivera moment in the ALDS; even when I’m right I’m still wrong—but that their season ended so early should not come as a surprise.

It’s funny, albeit in a way that’s not funny to most Sox fans, how the Sox are now the team that’s proving merely having a historical edge over a rival doesn’t make up for being the lesser team. When it came to breaking down the series a week (or three weeks) ago, it was easy to rely on the ol’ reliables when it comes to Sox-Angels in October—the Sox owning the Angels at Fenway, the Sox’ ruthlessly effective offense wearing out a workmanlike Angels staff, Scioscia getting too cute—and come up with a way the Sox would advance to the ALCS.

But all that stuff was irrelevant. The Angels were the better and more complete team while the Sox were far more flawed and inconsistent than their 95 wins might indicate.

The Sox were just 79-65 against teams not named the Baltimore Orioles. They went 27-11 immediately after the season-altering four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees against competition that finished the season 53 games over .500. Yet they were just 12-16 in the second half against teams that finished over .500.

The Sox finished over .500 in every month, but by four games or fewer in May, July and August. They went 8-14 in the first 22 games following the All-Star Break, during which they went from three games ahead of the Yankees to 6 ½ behind.

Their September/October record (19-13) was boosted by four freebies on the final weekend of the season against the Indians, managed by Dead Man Walking Eric Wedge. In fact, the Sox lost their final nine games against teams that were still trying (Yankees, Blue Jays and Angels).

As usual, the Sox finished among the majors’ top offensive teams, but they were more dangerous at home, where they averaged 5.94 runs per game and recorded a .365 on-base percentage and .498 slugging percentage, than on the road, where they averaged 4.83 runs per game with a .340 on-base percentage and a .414 slugging percentage.

The Sox went cold on offense at the most inopportune time against the Angels, but sudden outages were a common theme this season. The Sox opened the season by scoring five runs or less in eight straight games, during which they went 2-6. Here are their other extended droughts with their record in that stretch in parenthesis.

—Scored four runs or less in seven of eight games from May 10-19 (4-4)
—Scored three runs or less in five straight games from May 26-30 (1-4)
—Scored four runs or less in five straight games from June 25-29 (3-2)
—Scored four runs or less in seven straight games from July 17-24 (2-5)
—Scored four runs or less in five of six games from Aug. 4-9 (0-6)

The team that seemed to have almost too much depth in the first half of the season with eight potential starting pitchers, a whole bunch of closer-type relievers setting up for Papelbon and players like Julio Lugo and Rocco Baldelli on the bench entered the playoffs with a three-man rotation, a long reliever (Paul Byrd) who was three months removed from pitching to his son’s team, two reserve outfielders (Brian Anderson and Joey Gathright) who spent the bulk of the season with other organizations and combined for just 33 at-bats with the Sox and a backup middle infielder (Jed Lowrie) who hit .147 in 68 at-bats.

This was a flawed team that Theo Epstein tried to retool on the fly with an atypical mid-season blockbuster trade. And he’ll surely work a hundred or so hours per week between now and mid-February trying to create a championship-caliber squad that will play a lot deeper into October next year.

But what if the Sox’ biggest problem cannot be fixed with a couple savvy transactions? What if the issue is the collective makeup?

This theory comes with plenty of caveats. Maybe, since I was sitting in my recliner Sunday night, I missed something subtle in Dustin Pedroia’s delivery earlier in the afternoon, and maybe his words cannot be taken too seriously since they were uttered minutes after a shocking season-ending defeat. And maybe I misread the vibe around Fenway Park during my brief visits to Boston this year.

But in spilling so many pixels earlier this season about how the Red Sox have turned into the Yankees, we never pondered what seems so obvious now: That the Sox, like the last few Yankees teams managed by Joe Torre, seem suffocatingly serious and sucked dry by sky-high internal expectations that declare anything short of a world championship not worth the effort.

“We all think of this year as a failure,” Pedroia told reporters after the game.

This is a team that plays in a city that worships its athletes and whose decision-makers have earned a deservedly wide benefit of the doubt from the vast media that covers it. So why are the Sox, from the very top on down, harping on the perceived negativity surrounding the team and dismissively waving away the attention with one hand while giving Google a workout with the other?

Again: Parsing coverage and attention in hopes of finding any slight, real or manufactured, is in the DNA of every elite athlete, as I write in Fighting Words (available now!). But at some point, doesn’t it become counter-productive?

The Yankees, meanwhile, are turning into the 2003-04 Sox before our very eyes, with the likes of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher infusing a goofy, relaxed aura into the once-stuffy locker room. That said, all the chatter about the looser, more carefree Yankees won’t mean a thing if they are disposed of by the Angels or the NL champion, and this is not a plaintive cry to bring back the Idiots.

It must also be noted that the Sox are less than two years removed from winning it all with a seemingly joyless team and less than 365 days removed from a thrilling, albeit aborted, ALCS comeback against the Rays that was almost every bit as unbelievable and gutsy as the one the Sox pulled off in 2004.

And of course there should be disappointment in the aftermath of a season-ending defeat, and of course the ultimate goal should always be a world championship. But there is no shame—and certainly no failure—in wringing every last bit of season out of a flawed squad. Infusing the roster with some more talent is key this winter, but not as pivotal, perhaps, as Epstein infusing it with some perspective as well.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jerrybeach.

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